Reviews

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – Review

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Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, Xbox One, PC, Wii U and PS4
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

With Assassin’s Creed III failing to impress many critics and gamers alike, and with Desmond now firmly out of the way, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was Ubisoft’s chance to take a step back and examine what they’ve done right and what they’ve done wrong. It’s an opportunity they seem to have grasped with a fervor, and in the process have managed to craft what I’m going to boldly declare the best game in the franchise to date, and the greatest pirate game we have ever had.

The new lead character of Black Flag is the virtual embodiment of Ubisoft’s firm step backwards away from the action. The Assassin’s Creed franchise usually  sinks you into the boots of an Assassin or soon to be Assassin with a strict moral code, a do-gooder intent on fighting the good fight and helping old ladies across a busy road, regardless of whether they wanted help or actually needed to cross the road. But this time we take on the role of Edward Kenway, a pirate with a fearsome reputation who desires only to improve his own lot in life.He’s motivated by money and glory, not by a creed or desire to help the world.

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We pick up the story of Edward Kenway in his home in Wales. He’s a married man, but far from happy with his lot in life. Fed up with having to live in abject poverty and seeing no way to improve his situation through honest labor, Kenway makes the decision to become a privateer in the hopes that this may lead to a better quality of life, but his wife refuses to go along with his plans and leaves him. Despairing, Kenway sets out, determined to earn himself a better life and get his wife back. After spending a stint as a privateer he winds up encountering an Assassin, whom he eventually kills. Kenway takes the Assassin’s robes along with the package and note in his pocket. Following the instructions, in which the author conveniently mentions not knowing the Assassin’s face, Edward sets out to deliver the mysterious item in the hopes of there being a reward. As it transpires the Assassin was a defector, and Edward finds himself working with the Templars who are intent on finding something called the Observatory.

For fear of spoiling the storyline I’ll stop there, but the first chunk of the story is worth telling as it provides an admirable set up for the most unique of the Assassin’s Creed tales yet. Suffice to say that Edward doesn’t hang around with Templars long, and having managed to upset both them and the Assassin’s through his actions he acquires a ship of his own and embarks on a life of piracy, one which brings him in contact with some of the most fearsome names to sail the seas. Because Edward has no affiliation with either of the orders they take a less of central role for much of the story while maintaining a constant presence in the background as befits two secret, shadowy organizations, their influence felt at almost every turn without the focus shifting from Edward himself. Of course Kenway runs into both orders from time to time, but they’re more of an obstacle, blocking his path to riches. It’s not until much later in the tale when the Assassins and Templars start to come to the fore of the story.

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The fact that Kenway is a member of neither of these mysterious orders for the vast majority of the game provides a welcome shift in perspective, allowing us to view them from the outside and in doing so gain interesting new insight into both. Continuing from ACIII the Templars no longer feel like they’re being painted simply as nefarious villains twirling a moustache, and are presented more as an order with a real conviction behind their actions that merely have a different view of the world, one that is perhaps distasteful but not without merit.

After the stoic attitude of Connor, Edward is a  refreshing change of pace, boasting all the roguish charm of a certain Italian gentlemen named Ezio and a touch of the Jack Sparrow swagger, while his selfish motivations of money and glory place him purely in the anti-hero zone but written in such a fun and boisterous way that it’s near impossible not to like the man. He’s an easy fellow to sympathise with, his desire for a better life being the driving force behind everything he does, yet clearly he’s not a good man. But then, like all good anti-heroes neither is he a truly bad man as he does have a moral code that he follows. He’s a scoundrel and a warrior who dreams of a pirate’s republic made of free men. He’s intelligent and notices the little things, yet cynical of most of what he sees. Both Edward and the story channel the very essence of those classic swashbuckling tales which captured so many kids imaginations, while still retaining that darker, more brutal edge that any good tale of piracy needs to have. The writers also show considerable restraint in how they tell Edwards tale, taking their time to chart his life and his eventual turn to one of the orders in a believable way. There’s a single key moment which can be pointed to as the point in time when Edward finally puts aside who he has been for who he will become, but it’s built up to for hours upon hours of slowly watching Kenway change, his own regret for all that he has done creeping up on him, and the things that he learns along the way weighing heavy. Edward is a surprisingly complex nuanced character, and thus watching his journey is a pleasurable experience. This is a tale if redemption, betrayal, heartache, sorrow, joy, glory and acceptance. It doesn’t always come together in a very cohesive way – a problem almost all of the Assassin’s Creed games have suffered from, and there’s quite a few narrative threads introduced, almost forgotten about and then wrapped up in a few lines of dialogue – but that doesn’t stop it from being a hugely enjoyable tale of piracy.

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It’s not just Kenway, though, the cast of characters that he surrounds himself are a fascinating bunch of infamous pirates right out of the history books. Blackbeard is the star of the show, portrayed as a menacing man with a love of theatrics, while others like Calico Jack, Hornigold, Charles Vane and Anne Bonny are all neatly slotted in, their historical context used effectively within the story so that there’s always that sense that things really did happen this way. Still, in covering so years of Edward’s life many of this intriguing band of misfits never get enough time bestowed upon them, especially true of Calico Jack and Anne Bonny.

The polarizing modern-day sections have also been completely rethought with players who aren’t interested in that aspect of the tale having to spend barely 15-minutes total in the year 2013 . With the events of ACIII now firmly behind us you take control of a currently nameless person employed by Abtsergo, who have now opened up an entertainment division intent on turning the memories of people like Edward Kenway into game-like experiences. Very meta. Obviously this is all just a front for their shenanigans, but truth be told there’s not actually much of a plot going on during these sections which fail to advance the overall Assassin’s Creed arc in any meaningful way, coming dangerously close to rendering them completely pointless. However, those willing to spend extra time in the Abstergo building before heading back to their animus are able to hack other people’s computers and learn more about Desmond’s fate, as well as what’s been going in the intervening time between ACIII and Black Flag.

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Where the plot of Edward and the enigmatic Assassin and Templar orders  falls apart, much like it does in the previous games, is any time when the sci-fi nonsense rears its head. The McGuffin this time is the aforementioned Observatory and, any time it’s brought up in the plot is incredibly jarring. There’s absolutely no reason why ancient technology and the like can’t be worked into  historical settings, but the writers still struggle to weave these elements in to the script, and as a result they’re the weakest parts of the tale, which unfortunately leave a good chunk of the final few hours as the lowest points in the story.

You’d not be a pirate of note without a vessel. The Jackdaw is your ship and you’ll quickly come to love her with a fierce passion as she’s your primary means of transport, enabling you to sail from one end of the vast and beautiful Caribbean map to the other, plundering ships as you go, although a generous fast-travel system also lets you get around with minimal fuss. Given the age of both the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 Ubisoft have accomplished an impressive technical feat here, allowing you to go from dry land to the sea with loading screens only ever appearing when entering or leaving the three biggest cities, creating a nearly seamless experience. The world is huge and crammed with a myriad of things to do. Not only are there the usual collectibles scattered around for a dedicated player to hunt down, but towns  offer up Assassination contracts, bite-sized missions that let you hone your skills by killing the target any way you see fit, though a bonus is usually awarded for keeping out of direct conflict. Templar hunts are small, narrative-driven quest chains, with the ultimate reward for completing them all being a nifty suit of Templar armor for you to stride around in. Having these smaller stories tio partake in is a most welcome addition to the franchise, and one that I’d like to see kept and expanded on going forward. Treasure Maps give you landmarks with which to hunt down buried riches, one of the many areas in which you’ll notice Black Flag’s ever so slightly looser interpretation of historical facts. Meanwhile Black Flag has taken a page from the Far Cry 3 book of play so that now hunting animals for their skins lets you craft extra holsters and better armor for Edward, giving purpose to the otherwise pointless beast slaying of Assassin’s Creed III. Finally, raiding warehouses can provide you with small boosts to your cash and supplies.

Naval

It’s out on the open ocean where some of the most interesting new additions appear, though. Harpooning was a brutal reality of the time, and its depicted here faithfully in a mini-game where you set out in a small boat with a collection of harpoons in order to bring down massive whales, hammerhead sharks and the like, all in the name of upgrades and money. First you must anxiously watch the water for signs of movement, and once spotted you hurl the spear at your intended target. Connect and not only will you damage the creature but you’ll find your little boat being dragged along at a furious pace as you attempt to land more blows. While simplistic this harpooning mini-game is surprisingly thrilling, and messing up results in your little craft getting torn to pieces by the irate beast. It’s also important to note that harpooning may feel a little savage for some, so bear in mind that it’s a completely optional mission type done solely for the purposes of upgrading Edwards gear, and the entire game can be played without ever needing to do it.

Meanwhile using a Diving Bell you can dive down the sea floor and explore old wrecks for treasure, with the most valuable discoveries being plans for  elite ship upgrades. Small barrels of air are placed by your crew along the way so that you can quickly grab a lungful, but more dangers lurk in the water than just the simple fear of drowning: sharks prowl the wrecks while eels tend to hide in the underwater foliage before latching on to your arm. Hiding in seaweed patches is the only way to avoid the attention of sharks, so underwater exploration becomes a tense game of cat and mouse as you patiently wait for a gap to open up so you can make a break for the next hiding place, chest or barrel. Only awkward controls which make swimming in confined spaces a pain in the arse stop these sections from being truly great, but they’re enjoyable detours nonetheless.

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Attacking and capturing naval forts are a highlight of the game, marrying the brilliant naval combat, which we’re getting to, with on-land fights. First you must destroy a forts many defenses using the Jackdaw’s cannons, and that’s no easy task as the bigger the fort is the more firepower it has as its command, while patrolling ships will also interfere with your plans Mortar and cannon fire will rain down upon you, and so you need to use your sailing skills to avoid the attacks while launching your own, slowly demolishing the walls and silencing the cannons. Once the defenses lie in ruins you leap across from the deck of your ship to the fort and proceed to clamber over the walls and make your way through the raging battle, slicing enemy soldiers as you go, intent on your goal to kill the marked officers before kicking down the door of the war room and slaying the commander. Capturing a fort renders a portion of the map visible, highlighting islands to explore, harpooning locations, treasure chests and more, while also providing a safe heaven and fast-travel point. Taking a fort in this manner is just one of the many moments within Black Flag where you feel like a true pirate, taking what you want and living free.

Like previous games in the series you’ve got access to a home base which can be upgraded at great expense. This time around it’s a small island by the name of Great Inagua that you capture and take for your own for early on, its natural beauty topped off with a mansion for yourself and a small town for your pirate chums to use and enjoy. Using vast sums of Reales you can purchase such handy things as a brothel, shop, tavern and harbour master, as well as doing up your own place should you feel it’s looking a little drab. Unlike upgrading the Jackdaw or crafting new gear for Edward, though, sprucing up your island has little in the way of genuine benefits. At least a discount at shops or a better sale rate at the harbour master would have made it all worthwhile, but instead all you get is the ability to hire drunken pirates and dancers for free. Because of this upgrading my hideout was far down on list of priorities, the money far better spent on buying a better set of swords and pistols for myself or a new set of cannons for the Jackdaw.

Moby Dick

Speaking of which the upgrades available for your ship are many and damn expensive. The Jackdaw herself is a beauty of a ship. She’s a brig and therefore has a balance between being maneuverable while still sporting enough firepower to tackle sizable vessels, although for the first while you’ll be steering away from large frigates and Man ‘o’ Wars with a terrified expression plastered on your face as you quietly count the absurd amount of guns they boast. The amount of cannons on the ship, the hull armor, mortar damage, chain shot, cargo space, crew quarters and much more can all be upgraded numerous times each, and by doing so you’ll be able to tackle much larger enemy ships carrying more valuable cargo. It’s not just enough to have money, though, as ship upgrades also require metal, wood and cloth, and those can only be found aboard other ships that you must take for your own.

That’s where the naval battles come in. Regardless of whether you’re caught up in a fight with another ship or simply sailing to your destination there’s a sense of weight and size to controlling the Jackdaw, and so steering her takes a degree of skill. This is most notable in the chaotic mess of ship on ship combat where careful maneuvering and use of  momentum can lend you the upper hand against a single foe, and is utterly invaluable when facing off against several. While a low-level player will simply steer in circles firing broadsides, a skilled player can weave their way through multiple vessels with a mixture of deft wheel work and usage of the sails, all while keeping an eye on the waves in order to use them to their advantage as either shields against incoming fire, brakes or turning aids. This sense of pride that arises from becoming a good sailor is enhanced by the close camera position which makes you feel like you’re truly the captain of your ship.

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The Jackdaw is a vessel of many weapons, and learning how to control and use them all can at first feel a little awkward when you’re also attempting to navigate the ocean and combat a massive galleon. Looking forward lets you use your chainshot, while looking either left or right gives you control of your broadsides. Turn your gaze to the back and you can drop fire barrels, and holding down LB brings up the mortar reticule. Finally when prompted holding down Y fires the swivel guns for pin-point damage. Before long, though, these slightly fiddly controls become natural. Naval combat is easily the highlight of the entire game: it’s thrilling, tense and chaotic with genuine player skill required to emerge as the victor  - Broadsides must be well-aimed for maximum damage, positioning is key and learning how to use every weapon in a fight is invaluable, especially if you want to square off against the four legendary ships found at the four corners of the map. Facing one ship is fun, but frantic battles against multiple enemies at once is far, far better.

Sinking a ship lets you pick up half its cargo as your own, but boarding it lets you take it all. Once a ship is sitting dead in the water you can pull alongside, and then it’s up to you how to proceed. Swivel guns can be used to weaken the enemy crew, while ropes let you swing over in true classic pirate fashion, but my favorite is to clamber up the rigging, leap across the enemy ship and then perform an air assassination on the unfortunate fellows below. No matter what ship you’re taking you need to kill a certain amount of crew in order to succeed, but as you start tackling bigger and bigger prizes more objectives are added, such as killing the captain destroying the flag or igniting powder reserves.

Between the shop-to-ship combat and the boarding words cannot describe how awesome taking a ship feels. It’s like reliving all of those classic scenes from pirate films across the years, screaming at your crew to fire the guns before leaping aboard, drawing your twin-blades and scything your way through the crew of an entire Man ‘o’ War, drawing a pistol every now and then to gun down an unwary foe. It’s just a shame that the game overplays this too much for its own good: because the materials for upgrading the Jackdaw can only be gained from taking enemy ships and the story demands that you  improve the Jackdaw constantly you’ll find yourself having to capture a lot of vessels throughout the game, and that can become tiring. The battles are brilliant, but after a while one is much the same as another. Later in the game huge sums of money are also required for the best of the upgrades, and the quickest way to do that is to again capture ships carrying rum and sugar which can be sold for quick profit, so that means hoisting the flag even more. But while unleashing hell on Spanish and English ships did occasionally begin to feel mundane, it usually only took one pitched, hard-fought battle to bring back the sense of enjoyment, and should that fail then it’s time to simply sail into the sunset and take on some contracts or partake in some other activity.

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Indeed, a sense of repetition runs throughout the game.  Even though there’s a pretty wide selection of stuff to do, each activity in of itself doesn’t contain much variety. One assassination is much like the other, diving on this wreck is pretty much the same as diving on that one, and capturing this fort doesn’t feel any different from capturing the last one. Of course you can minimise this by mixing up activities, but after a while it does began to drag on you.

It’s worth pointing out that Black Flag finally gets the economic system right. In the previous games money was laughably easy to come by and there was little to actually spend it on aside from buying shops or trading, which only resulted in you having even more money. In Black Fag cash is harder to get hold of and there’s far more to spend it on, with the most expensive upgrades requiring large sums of Reales to acquire. There wasn’t a single moment in the game where I had too much money at hand and nothing to spend it on.

Finally we come to the two core pillars of Assassin’s Creed, the free running and the combat. When it works the single button parkour system is as great as ever, allowing you to run and leap your way through the environment using graceful animations, although transitions between animations still appear a little jerky. However, over the years the system has begun to show its cracks, and in Black Flag, as we near a new generation, the flaws are becoming more and more obvious. Edward will often  simply come to a complete halt, the game seemingly unable to cope with certain angles, or it’ll take ages for him to pull himself up on to a ledge. With Ubisoft’s frustrating desire to stick to a single button for parkour and sprinting the old problem of finding yourself running up walls or leaping on to posts when you didn’t mean to is still present.  This is an example where over simplification of the controls hurts the game, and thus if Ubisoft choose not to overhaul this system completely like they should for the next game then I ask that they at least return to the two-button system of old as it provided more precise movement. These problems aside picking your way across the rooftops of Port Royale or through the jungles of some strange little island still feels pretty cool.

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Combat is as simplistic as ever, requiring little more than mashing the attack button and abusing the incredibly generous counter system to mow down anyone who dares try and strike a blow. Sure, occasionally you need to use the defense break move on an enemy who is blocking everything you throw at them, but that’s as deep as it goes. Worse, take down a few enemies and combat becomes even easier as Edward gains the ability to chain together kills so long as he isn’t hit. Throwing in things like the rope dart, pistols and smoke bombs spice things up just a little, but there’s just isn’t enough depth here to keep combat engaging. Still, at least swordplay is a fun spectacle to watch, as Edward wields his blades with savagery and deadly skill, making clearing the deck of a massive warship during a raging storm look pretty bloody awesome.

In taking a step back Ubisoft have also addressed the heavily criticised usage if linear mission designs in ACIII, venturing back into the past games and bringing back the more open assassination missions. With more freedom to experiment and approach targets not only do you feel like a proper assassin but it also leads to far more enjoyable missions. Heavier usage of stalking zones and the like also help balance out the increasingly clumsy feeling stealth mechanics. Between this increase in foliage and the ability to hide around corners Black Flag  manages to stay feeling fun during stealth sections, but it’s reached the time where Ubisoft need do some serious thinking.  Yet even as the developers attempt to bring back more of what players love about the series they continue to commit the cardinal sin of retaining other more hated elements. Black Flag has quite a few missions that venture back into restrictive territory, either through more linear environments with obvious ways of tackling foes or through instant failure conditions which leave you forced to conform rather than adept. The utterly dreadful tailing and eavesdropping missions which have you follow targets for minutes at a time as they delivery often pointless exposition are also in horrifying abundance, and are as frustrating as ever. Even worse they’ve creeped their way into the naval gameplay so that you’ll now on occasion find yourself following enemy ships through restricted waters, dodging patrols.

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Multiplayer returns but has seem minimal change with all of the game modes present having simply been copied over from Assassin’s Creed III. However a new Game Lab does let you play around with the existing modes, altering rules and scores to create variants on that which already exists, lending the  multiplayer a new lease on life. Stalking other players through crowds and over rooftops is as tense and thrilling as it ever has been, but the longetivity remains an issue as past the intial few hours there’s not much to learn. You won’t be discovering new and exciting strategies and the like weeks into playing, rather you’ll just be refining your existing skills.

The Wolfpack co-op mode has seen some welcome tweaks so now instead of just battling waves of AI the game introduces new objectives every few rounds so that you might find yourself defending chests or the like, providing some most welcome variation.

Sadly there’s no sign of ship-to-ship combat making it into the multiplayer, something which would have frankly been fucking amazing had Ubisoft managed to do it, but the company said it would simply be too difficult, although I remain hopeful that the true next-generation iteration of the series could pull it off. Battling another human on the high-seas would undoubtedly be a great experience if handled right, and would also be completely unique.

Truth be told I’ve grown tired of the multiplayer in anything but small doses. I enjoy hunting down my prey, but modes which remove my ability to kill other plays and the fact that people who simply run hell for leather to kill targets seem to win a lot of the games leave me feeling annoyed, as does the aforementioned freerunning problems which can result in your death or failure more often than not. It’s in need of a shakeup, though  I admit that I’m unsure as to how one would go about doing that whilst retaining the unique feel of the multiplayer.

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Where Black Flag shines like a beacon in the night is when you’re sailing the seas, freed from the shackles of direction and allowed to simply indulge your desire for exploration and piracy. With no loading screens to distract you it’s easy to get lost in the serenity of sailing the high seas, diving on wrecks, plundering Spanish and English vessels alike, taking forts and scanning the horizon with your spyglass. The ocean is a cruel but beautiful mistress, her temperament changing from calm to shitstorm in mere seconds. There’s something indescribably brilliant about sailing through a storm battling a Spanish Man ‘o’ War, deftly navigating the vast waves as rain pours down across you and your crew as they load the cannons. It feels like something straight out of a movie but with all of the player interactivity of a game. And then you swing across yo capture the vessel, slicing your way through foes with your dual blades and gunning them down with flintlock pistols while rolling waves crash into the ship. As you clamber the rigging to destroy the flag you notice a bigger Man ‘o’ War sailing for you through the storm and steel yourself for another pitched battle, determined to forge your name as a legendary pirate that all will fear. The simple truth is that I lost myself in the role of a pirate, revelling in playing the part here than I do in most RPGs. The fact of the matter is that playing Black Flag, with all of its many faults, is the most pure fun I’ve had all year, which is why I feel it deserves the high score I have given it.

Still, with the next generation arriving Assassin’s Creed is in need of an overhaul, namely in its combat, stealth and freerunning mechanics which can undoubtedly be vastly improved with the new technology and power on offer. As much as I love Black Flag elements of it were starting to feel shoddy and I don’t think another entry in the series can get away with retaining the current freerunning and combat systems in place, as well as the current mission designs, without me heavily criticising it.

So its with a smile on my face that I boldly proclaim Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag to be the best game in the franchise to date – although Assassin’s Creed II might have something to say about that – and by far the greatest pirate game ever. By shifting the focus directly to Edward and keeping both the Templars and Assassins in the background for much of the game the story feels far more enjoyable, easily the best since Assassin’s Creed II, even if the sci-fi stuff still struggles to be woven neatly into the plot. The developers have created a game with a more adventurish, fun tone that has an almost Pirates of the Caribbean vibe to it, and in doing so have created a memorable character in Edward Kenway who stands proudly beside Ezio as one of my most beloved videogame personalities. The vast world is awash with color and fun to be had, the ending is ultimately satisfying, even if the final mission was anti-climatic, and the mechanics while ultimately starting to crumble manage to deliver brilliant spectacles.

The Good:
+ Living like a pirate.
+ Sailing the Jackdaw.
+ Naval combat.
+ Edward Kenway.

The Bad:
– Thought still fun, the mechanics are starting to crack.
– Story isn’t as cohesive as it should be.
– Bloody tailing/eavesdrop missions.
– Final mission is anti-climatic.

The Score: 4.5/5 – Great, bordering on awesome.
How can a game with so many clear flaws score so high? The answer is fun. Despite its many flaws this is a brilliantly fun game, one where I slipped into the role of a pirate and didn’t want to resurface.

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